The Story of Q

More posts on Greece, coming right up. But first I want to revisit the relationship between finance and nonfinancial business in the US.

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with Tobin’s q. The idea is that if investment decisions are being made to maximize the wealth of shareholders, as theory and, sometimes, the law say they should be, then there should be a relationship between the value of financial claims on the firm and the value of its assets. Specifically, the former should be at least as great as the latter, since if investing another dollar in the firm does not increase its value to shareholders by at least a dollar, then that money would better have been returned to them instead.

As usual with anything interesting in macroeconomics, the idea goes back to Keynes, specifically Chapter 12 of the General Theory:

the daily revaluations of the Stock Exchange, though they are primarily made to facilitate transfers of old investments between one individual and another, inevitably exert a decisive influence on the rate of current investment. For there is no sense in building up a new enterprise at a cost greater than that at which a similar existing enterprise can be purchased; whilst there is an inducement to spend on a new project what may seem an extravagant sum, if it can be floated off on the Stock Exchange at an immediate profit. Thus certain classes of investment are governed by the average expectation of those who deal on the Stock Exchange as revealed in the price of shares, rather than by the genuine expectations of the professional entrepreneur.

It was this kind of reasoning that led Hyman Minsky to describe Keynes as having “an investment theory of the business cycle, and a financial theory of investment.” Axel Leijonhufvud, on the other hand, would warn us against taking the dramatis personae of this story too literally; the important point, he would argue, is the way in which investment responds to the shifts in the expected return on fixed investment versus the long-term interest rate. For better or worse, postwar Keynesians including the eponymous Tobin followed Keynes here in thinking of one group of decisionmakers whose expectations are embodied in share prices and another group setting investment within the firm. If shareholders are optimistic about the prospects for a business, or for business in general, the value of shares relative to the cost of capital goods will rise, a signal for firms to invest more; if they are pessimistic, share prices will fall relative to the cost of capital goods, a signal that further investment would be, from the point of view of shareholders, value-subtracting, and the cash should be disgorged instead.

There are various specifications of this relationship; for aggregate data, the usual one is the ratio of the value corporate equity to corporate net worth, that is, to total assets minus total liabilities. In any case, q fails rather miserably, both in the aggregate and the firm level, in its original purpose, predicting investment decisions. Here is q for nonfinancial corporations in the US over the past 60 years, along with corporate investment.

The orange line is the standard specification of q; the dotted line is equity over fixed assets, which behaves almost identically. The black line shows nonfinancial corporations’ nonresidential fixed investment as a share of GDP. As you can see, apart from the late 90s tech boom, there’s no sign that high q is associated with high investment, or low q with low investment. In fact, the biggest investment boom in postwar history, in the late 1970s, comes when q was at its low point. [*]

The obvious way of looking at this is that, contra Tobin and (at least some readings of) Keynes, stock prices don’t seem to have much to do with fixed investment. Which is not so strange, when you think about it — it’s never been clear why managers and entrepreneurs should substitute the stock market’s beliefs about the profitability of some new investment for their own, presumably better-informed, one. Just as well, given the unanchored gyrations of the stock market.

This is true as far as it goes, but there’s another way of looking at it. Because, q isn’t just uncorrelated with investment; for most of the period, at least until the 1990s, it’s almost always well below 1. This is even more surprising when you consider that a well-run firm with an established market ought to have a q above one, since it will presumably have intangible assets — corporate culture, loyal customers and so on — that don’t show up on the balance sheet. In other words, measured assets should seem to be “too low”. But in fact, they’re almost always too high. For most of the postwar period, it seems that corporations were systematically investing too much, at least from the point of view maximizing shareholder value.

I was talking with Suresh the other day about labor, and about the way labor organizing can be seen as a kind of assertion of a property right. Whether shareholders are “the” residual claimants of a firm’s earnings is ultimately a political question, and in times and places where labor is strong, they are not. Same with tenant organizing — you could see it as an assertion that long-time tenants have a property right in their homes, which I think fits most people’s moral intuitions.

Seen from this angle, the fact that businesses were investing “too much” during much of the postwar decades no longer is a sign they were being irrational or made a mistake; it just suggests that they were considering the returns to claimants other than shareholders. Though one wouldn’t what to read too much into it, it’s interesting in this light that for the past dozen years aggregate q has been sitting at one, exactly where loyal agents for shareholders would try to keep it. In liberal circles, the relatively low business investment of the past decade is often considered a sign of something seriously wrong with the economy. But maybe it’s just a sign that corporations have learned to obey their masters.

EDIT: In retrospect, the idea of labor as residual claimant does not really belong in this argument, it just confuses things. I am not suggesting that labor was ever able to compel capitalist firms to invest more than they wanted, but rather that “capitalists” were more divided sociologically before the shareholder revolution and that mangers of firms chose a higher level of investment than was optimal from the point of view of owners of financial assets. Another, maybe more straightforward way of looking at this is that q is higher — financial claims on a firm are more valuable relative to the cost of its assets — because it really is better to own financial claims on a productive enterprise today than in the pr-1980 period. You can reliably expect to receive a greater share of its surplus now than you could then.

[*] One of these days I really want to write something abut the investment boom of the 1970s. Nobody seems to realize that the highest levels of business investment in modern US history came in 1978-1981, supposedly the last terrible days of stagflation. Given the general consensus that fixed capital formation is at the heart of economic growth, why don’t people ask what was going right then?

Part of it, presumably, must have been the kind of sociological factors pointed to here — this was just before the Revolt of the Rentiers got going, when businesses could still pursue growth, market share and innovation for their own sakes, without worrying much about what shareholders thought. Part must have been that the US was still able to successfully export in a range of industries that would become uncompetitive when the dollar appreciated in the 1980s. But I suspect the biggest factor may have been inflation. We always talk about investment being encouraged by stuff that makes it more profitable for capitalists to hold their wealth in the form of capital goods. But logically it should be just as effective to reduce the returns and/or safety of financial assets. Since neither nominal interest rates nor stock prices tracked inflation in the 1970s, wealthholders had no choice but to accept holding a greater part of their wealth in the form of productive business assets. The distributional case for tolerating inflation is a bit less off-limits in polite conversation than it was a few years ago, but the taboo on discussing its macroeconomic benefits is still strong. Would be nice to try violating that.

Netflix Disgorges the Cash

For a great example of what I’ve been talking about, check out this Dealbreaker post on how Netflix spent the past two years buying back its own stock, and then just this past Monday turned around and announced that it was selling stock again. Matt Levine:

NFLX bought 3.5 million shares of stock at an average price of $117 in 2010-2011, at a total cost of $410 million, and paid for it by issuing 5.2 million shares of stock at an average price of $77 in November 2011, for total proceeds of $400 million – minus $3 million that we pay to Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan to place the deal. So 1.7 million extra shares outstanding for net proceeds of negative $13mm or so. 

The comical thing about this from the point of view of the financial press is the buy-high, sell-low side of it. And of course whoever was on the other side of Netflix’s share repurchases this past summer, when the stock was at four times its current value, must be laughing right now. But as Levine says, this is what the system is set up to do:

Most companies are rewarded for squeezing every last penny out of EPS [earnings per share] – in executive bonuses, sure, but also in stock price more broadly. It’s what investors want. … So with Netflix: when things are good and it’s rolling in cash, it pushes up its price by buying. When things are bad and it needs cash, it pushes down its price by selling. And its incentives are neatly aligned to do so: when things are good, it needs one more penny of EPS; when things are terrible – hell, who cares about dilution when you’re unprofitable anyway? (It’s a good thing!)

Another way of looking at this, tho, is that buying its own shares high and selling them low is exactly how a firm should behave if shareholders really are the residual claimants, operationally and not just in principle. In the textbook this doesn’t really come out, since “shareholder as residual claimant” is just a first-order condition imposed on some linear equations. But if you take it seriously as a claim that shareholders own every incremental dollar that the firm earns or raises, and that management is a not just the solution to an Euler equation but a distinct group of people who may have their own views on the interests of the firm, then shareholders should want businesses to behave just like Netflix — pay out more when more is coming in, and then ask them for some back when more needs to go out. Can’t be a residual claimant if you don’t claim your residuals.

Now, financing investment is going to be more costly when it involves selling and repurchasing shares, compared to if you’d just kept the savings-investment nexus inside the firm in the first place. And these transactions were also disastrous for the firm’s long-term shareholders — in effect, they transferred $400 million from people who continued holding the stock to those who sold in 2010 and 2011. So in this case, a system designed to maximize shareholder value didn’t even deliver that. Shareholders would have done better with management who said, Screw the shareholders, we’re going to build the best, biggest online movie rental company we can. If you own our stock just sit back, shut up, and trust that you’ll get your payoff eventually.

As the man says, “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”

The Capitalist Wants an Exit

Like a gratifyingly large proportion of posts here, Disgorge the Cash! got a bunch of great comments. In one of the last ones, Glenn makes a number of interesting points, some of which I agree with, some which I don’t. Among other things, he asks why, if businesses really have good investment projects available, rational investors would demand that they pay out their cashflow instead. Isn’t it more logical to suppose that payouts are rising because investment opportunities are scarcer, rather than, as the posts suggests, that firms are investing less because they are being compelled to pay out more?

One standard answer would be information asymmetries. If firms have private information about the quality of their investment opportunities, it may be more efficient to have capital-allocation decisions made within firms rather than by outside lenders. The cost of being unable to shift capital between firms may be less than the cost of the adverse selection that comes with information asymmetries. That’s one answer. But here I want to talk about a different one.

Capital in general, and finance in particular, places a very high value on liquidity. But if wealth owners insist on the freedom to reallocate their holdings at a moment’s notice, and need the promise of very high returns to let them be bound up in something illiquid, then investment in the aggregate will be inefficiently low. As Keynes famously wrote,

Of all the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of “liquid” securities. It forgets there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole.

Or as Tom Geoghegan recalls, from the last days of the old regime in the late 1970s,

Once a friend of mine from Harvard Business School came to visit, and I took him to South Works, just to see it.

“Wow,” he said. “I’ve never seen so much capital just lying on the ground. At B School we used to laugh at how conservative these big steel companies are, but then you could come out and see all this capital, just lying on the ground…”

Capitalists, in general, do not like to see their capital just lying on the ground. They prefer it to be abstract, intangible, liquid.

There’s no question that the shareholder revolution of the 1980s had a strong distributional component. Rentiers thought that workers were getting to much of “their” money. But if we’re looking specifically at the conflict between shareholders and management — as much a conflict between worldviews as between distinct groups of people — then I think “the fetish of liquidity” is central.

As Keynes understood, liquidity is what stock markets are for. What they’re not for, is raising funds for investment. That wasn’t why they were invented (the publicly traded corporation is a relatively recent innovation), and it’s not what they’ve been used for. Apart from a few years in the 1920s and a few more in the late 1990s, stock issues have never been an important source of investment finance for firms.

Let’s talk about Groupon. Huge IPO, raised $700 million, the biggest offering in years. So, those people who bought shares, they’re getting ownership of the company in return for providing it much needed funds for expansion, right?

Except that “Groupon has been shouting until it’s blue in the face that it doesn’t need the IPO cash, that it’s fine on the cash front, that the IPO is just a way of going public, and is not really about the money-raising at all.” Cashflow is more than enough to finance all their foreseeable expansion plans. So why go public at all, then?

Because their existing investors want cash, that’s why. Pre-IPO, Groupon was already notorious for using venture capitalist funds to cash out earlier investors.

Groupon is a very innovative company, and this is one of its most important innovations — the idea that the founder can and even should be able to cash out to the tune of millions of dollars very early on in the company’s lifecycle, while it is still raising new VC funds…. Historically, VC rounds have been about providing capital to companies which need it; in Groupon’s case, they’re more about finding a way to cash out early investors

But the venture capitalists need to be cashed out in their turn. After CEO Andrew Mason turned down offers from Yahoo and then Google to purchase the company, his VC bankers became increasingly antsy about being stuck owning a business, even a business selling something intangible as internet coupons, rather than safe pure money. Thus the IPO:

The board — and Groupon’s investors — had a message for Mason, though. Someday, he was going to have to either accept an offer like that one he had just turned down, or take this company public.

One investor recounts the conversation: “We said, okay Andrew, you took venture capital, and remember venture capitalists want an exit.  It doesn’t have to be tomorrow but you always have to be thoughtful when a company comes to buy your company, because it’s not just you, it’s your employees, options, investors and alike.”

That’s what Wall Street is for: to give capitalists their exit.

The problem finance solves is not how to allocate society’s scarce savings between competing investment opportunities. In modern conditions, it’s the opportunities that are scarce, not the savings. (Savings glut, anyone?) The problem is how to separate the rents that come from control of a strategic social coordination problem from the social ties and obligations that go with it. The true capitalist doesn’t want to make steel or restaurant deals or jumbo jets or search engines. He wants to make money. That’s been true right from the beginning. It’s why we have stock markets in the first place.

Historically the publicly-owned corporation came into being to allow owners (or more typically, their heirs) to delink their fortunes from particular firms or industries, and not as a way of raising capital.

In her definitive history of the wave of mergers that first established publicly-traded corporations (outside of railroads), Naomis Lamoreaux is emphatic that raising funds for investment was not an important motivation for adopting the new ownership form. In contemporary accounts of the merger wave, she says, “Access to capital is not mentioned.” And in the hearings by the U.S. Industrial Commission on the mergers,  “None of the manufacturers mentioned access to capital markets as a reason for consolidation.” Rather, the motivation for the new ownership form was a desire by the new capitalist elite to separate their wealth and status from the fortunes of any particular firm or industry:

after the founder’s death or retirement, ownership dispersed among heirs “who often were interested only in receiving income” from the company rather than running it. Where the founder was able to consolidate family control, as in Ford or Rockefeller,

the shift to public ownership was substantially delayed.

The same point is developed by historians Thomas Navin and Marian Sears:

A pattern of ownership somewhat like that in the cotton textile industry of New England might eventually have come to prevail: ownership might have spread, but to a limited degree; shares might have become available to outsiders, but to a restricted extent. It was the merger movement that accelerated the process and intensified it – to a smaller extent in the earlier period, 1890-1893, to a major degree in the later period, 1898-1902. As a result of the merger movement, far more people parted with their ownership in family businesses than would otherwise have done so; and doubtless far more men of substance (nonindustrialists with investable capital) put their funds into industry than would otherwise have chosen that type of investment. …

[As to] why individual stockholders saw an advantage in surrendering their ownership in a single enterprise in favor of participation in a combined venture …, one of the strong motivations apparently was an opportunity to liquidate part of their investment, coupled with the opportunity to remain part owners. At least this was a theme that was played on when stockholders were asked to join in a merger. The argument may have been used that mergers brought an easing of competition and an opportunity for enhanced earnings in the future. But the trump card was immediate liquidity.

The comparison with New England is interesting. Indeed, in the first half of the 19th century a very different kind of capitalism developed there, dynastic not anonymous, based on acknowledging the social ties embodied in a productive enterprise rather, than trying to minimize them. But historically the preference for money has more often won out. This was even more true in the early days of capitalism, in the 17th century. Braudel:

it was in the sphere of circulation, trade and marketing that capitalism was most at home; even if it sometimes made more than fleeting incursions on to the territory of production.

Production, he continues, was “foreign territory” for capitalists, which they only entered reluctantly, always taking the first chance to return to the familiar ground of finance and long-distance trade. Of course this changed dramatically with the Industrial Revolution. But there’s an important sense in which it’s still, or once again, true.

Disgorge the Cash!

It’s well known that some basic parameters of the economy changed around 1980, in a mutation that’s often called neoliberalism or financialization. Here’s one piece of that shift that doesn’t get talked about much, but might be relevant to our current predicament.

Source: Flow of Funds

The blue line shows the after-tax profits of nonfinancial corporations. The dotted red line shows dividend payments by those same corporations, and the solid red line shows total payout to shareholders, that is dividends plus net share repurchases. All three are expressed as a share of trend GDP. The thing to look at it is the relationship between the blue line and the solid red one.

In the pre-neoliberal era, up until 1980 or so, nonfinancial businesses paid out about 40 percent of their profits to shareholders. But in most of the years since 1980, they’ve paid out more than all of them. In 2006, for example, nonfinancial corporations had after-tax earnings of $800 billion, and paid out $365 billion in dividends and $565 in net stock repurchases. In 2007, earnings were $750 billion, dividends were $480 billion, and net stock repurchases were $790 billion. (Yes, net stock repurchases exceeded after-tax profits.) In 2008 it was $600, $470, and $340 billion. And so on. [1]

It was a common trope in accounts of the housing bubble that greedy or shortsighted homeowners were extracting equity from their houses with second mortgages or cash-out refinancings to pay for extra consumption. What nobody mentioned was that the rentier class had been doing this longer, and on a much larger scale, to the country’s productive enterprises. At the top of every boom in the neoliberal era, there’s been a massive round of stock buybacks, which you could think of as shareholders cashing out their bubble wealth. It’s a bit like the homeowners “using their houses as ATMs” during the 2000s. The difference, of course, is that if you took too much equity out of your house in the bubble, you’re the one stuck with the mortgage payments today. Whereas when shareholders use businesses as ATMs, those businesses’ workers and customers get to share the pain.

One way of thinking about this increase in the share of profits flowing out of the firm, is in terms of changing relations between managers and the owning class. The managerial capitalism of Galbraith or Berle and Means, with firms pursuing a variety of objectives and “owners” just one constituency among many, really existed, but only in the decades after World War II. That, anyway, is the argument of Dumenil and Levy’s Crisis of Neoliberalism. In the postwar period,

corporations were managed with concerns, such as investment and technical change, significantly distinct from the creation of “shareholder value.” Managers enjoyed relative freedom to act vis-a-vis owners, with a considerable share of profits retained within the firm for the purpose of investment. … Neoliberalism put an end to this autonomy because it implied a containment of capitalist interests, and established a new compromise at the top of the social hierarchies… during the 1980s, the disciplinary aspect of the new relationship between the capitalist and the managerial classes was dominant… after 2000, managers had become a pillar of Finance. 

When I’ve heard Dumenil talk about this development, he calls the new configuration at the top a “loving marriage”; the book says, less evocatively, that today

income patterns suggest that a process of “hybridization” or merger is underway. … The boundary between high-ranking managers and the capitalist classes is blurred.

The key thing is that at one point, large businesses really were run by people who, while autocratic within the firm and often vicious in defense of their privileges, really did identify with the particular businesses they managed and focused their energy on their survival and growth, and even on the sheer disinterested desire to do their kind of business well. You can find a few businesses that are still run like this — I’ve been meaning to write a post on Steve Jobs — but by far the dominant ethos among managers today is that a business exists only to enrich its shareholders, including, of course, senior managers themselves. Which they have done very successfully, as the graph above (or a look at the world outside) shows.

In terms of the specific process by which this cam about, the best guide is chapter 6 of Doug Henwood’s Wall Street (available for free download here.) [2] As Doug makes clear, the increased payouts to shareholders didn’t just happen. They’re the result of a conscious, deliberate effort by owners of financial assets to reassert their claims on corporate income, using the carrot of high pay and stock for mangers and the stick of hostile takeovers for those who didn’t come through. Here’s Michael Jensen spelling out the problem from finance’s point of view:

Conflicts of interest between shareholders and managers over payout policies are especially severe when the organization generates substantial cashflow. The problem is how to motivate managers to disgorge the cash rather than investing it at below the cost of capital or wasting it on organization inefficiencies [by which Jensen seems to have mostly meant high wages].

Peter Rona, also quoted in Wall Street, expresses the same thought but in a decidedly less finance-friendly way: Shareholders “take pretty much the same view of the corporation as a praying mantis does of her mate.”

You don’t see the overt Jensen-type arguments as much now that management at most firms is happy to disgorge all of its cash and then some. But they’re not gone. A while back I saw a column in the business press — wish I could remember where — expressing outrage at Apple’s huge cash reserves. Because they should be investing that in new technology, or expanding production and hiring people? Of course not. It’s outrageous because that’s the shareholders’ money, and why isn’t Apple handing it over immediately. More than that, why doesn’t Apple issue a bunch of bonds, as much as the market will take, and pay the proceeds out to the shareholders too? From the point of view of the creatures on Wall Street, a company that prioritizes its long-term growth and survival is stealing from them.

UPDATE: Ah, here’s the piece I was thinking of: Forget iPad, it’s time for iGetsomemoneyback. From right before the iPad launch, it’s a gem of the rentier mindset, complete with mockery of Apple for investing in this silly tablet thing instead of just handing all its money to Wall Street.

Why is Apple hoarding its cash? A company spokesman explains: “We have maintained our cash and strong balance sheet to preserve the flexibility to make strategic investments and/or acquisitions.” … Steve Jobs really doesn’t need an acquisitions warchest of around $30 billion … He should start handing back this money to stockholders through dividends. … The money belongs to stockholders: Give. Indeed Jobs should go further. Apple should — gasp — start borrowing, and hand that money back, too.
Disgorge the cash!

SECOND UPDATE: Welcome to visitors from Dealbreaker, Felix Salmon and Powerline. If you like this, other posts here you might like include Selfish Masters, Selfless Servants; The Financial Crisis and the Recession; What Do Bosses Want?; and in sort of a different vein, Satisfaction.

[1] There’s something very odd going on in the fourth quarter of 2005: According to the Flow of Funds, dividend payments by nonfinancial firms dropped to essentially zero. The shortfall was made up in the preceding and following quarters. I suspect there must be some tax change involved. Does anybody (Bruce Wilder, maybe) have any idea what it is?

[2] John Smithin’s Macroeconomic Policy and the Future of Capitalism is also very good on this; it’s subtitle (“the revenge of the rentiers”) gives a better flavor of the argument than the bland title.

Post Keynesianism in Practice

From the FT the other day:

That Facebook is worth $50bn or Twitter $10bn, is recounted as fact. … But there are still precious few numbers to analyse and business models are no more proved than for dotcoms a decade ago.

To illustrate the ridiculousness of trying to value these things consider LinkedIn. Its S-1 registration statement (with US regulators) provides rudimentary financial statements from which to model the company. Revenues, operating costs, capital expenditure and depreciation and amortisation schedules are available for the past five years. It is then a hop to forecast earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation and, thus, future free cash flows. Discount these cash flows (made easier because there is no debt) and you’ve got a valuation.

But who on earth knows what forecasts to make? Private secondary markets supposedly value LinkedIn at $2.5bn-$3bn. To arrive at the bottom of that range requires sales to expand 60, 50 then 40 per cent over the next three years, before tailing off to a terminal growth rate of 3 per cent in 2019. Ebitda as a proportion of revenues has to double to 20 per cent and stay there. … If sales growth tapers off faster than expected or if systems spending becomes a bottomless pit, you can halve that valuation for starters. But what if LinkedIn’s platform easily copes with millions of new members? Double ebitda margins to 40 per cent and a $5bn company is easily within reach. Who knows? No wonder it’s easier to simply quote the same price tag as everyone else.

Fundamental or Knightian uncertainty tends to get treated as something airy-fairy, as part of the philosophy-of penumbra rather than economics per se. But as this example shows, it’s unavoidable in plenty of practical questions. Mainstream models avoid dealing with the problem by assuming that the true probability distribution of all possible future events is always known. But in the real world of business people aren’t so silly. As the man says:

The outstanding fact is the extreme precariousness of the basis of knowledge on which our estimates of prospective yield have to be made. Our knowledge of the factors which will govern the yield of an investment some years hence is usually very slight and often negligible. If we speak frankly, we have to admit that our basis of knowledge for estimating the yield ten years hence of a railway, a copper mine, a textile factory, the goodwill of a patent medicine, an Atlantic liner, a building in the City of London amounts to little and sometimes to nothing; or even five years hence. In fact, those who seriously attempt to make any such estimate are often so much in the minority that their behaviour does not govern the market. …

Investment based on genuine long-term expectation is so difficult to-day as to be scarcely practicable. He who attempts it must surely lead much more laborious days and run greater risks than he who tries to guess better than the crowd how the crowd will behave… It needs more intelligence to defeat the forces of time and our ignorance of the future than to beat the gun.

Economists might not believe in Keynes any more. But business journalists certainly seem to!